Will Google Charging For Search Transform The Internet As We Know It? Probably Not

Will Google Charging For Search Transform The Internet As We Know It? Probably Not

Late last week, a Financial Times report dropped a bit of a bombshell or a revelation that might lead to a bit of a bombshell — for the first time in its history is considering charging users for its search product.

Specifically, Google is reportedly considering charging users for new “premium” features powered by its generative AI tech.

“Engineers are developing the technology needed to deploy the service but executives have not yet made a final decision on whether or when to launch it,” according to one of the three nameless sources in the article.

Google’s traditional search engine would remain free of charge, while ads would continue to appear alongside search results, even for subscribers. Clearly, there’s a lot on the table for Google — as well as growing rival Bing and other, less traditional forms of search. So what happens next?

“There’s a more fundamental question that people forget,” said Gary Nissim, founder and managing director of digital marketing agency Indago Digital.

“One example recently, say it’s my kid’s birthday coming up and I want to buy him a hoverboard. So I head to Google and type in ‘Best hoverboard for a 10-year-old boy,’ in a generative environment, Google is going to look for a reputable website and give me a curated response. Now that might be from one website and it doesn’t know whether my child has good or bad balance, if my child is sporty, overweight or underweight and what’s best on one website might not be best on another. You end up with a limited result.”

The user would then be presented with a list of products to choose from. In some instances, this is preferable. In others, it isn’t.

“The place [where generative AI search] is best is if I want something statistically significant. Who won the 200-metre freestyle at the Sydney Olympics, for instance? It can give me a curated result,” added Nissim.

“Generative isn’t the best for every search.”

Generative AI, despite much clamour to the contrary, will not kill traditional searching. However, traditional searching’s limitations — of which there are many — have been brought into sharp focus since Microsoft and OpenAI started to integrate ChatGPT into Bing.

“Yes, the way people are searching is changing,” said Matt Hodgson, founder of digital performance agency Bring.

“Depending on what you’re looking for, people might use Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or other platforms. But, if you look at it from a perspective of Google losing market share, it doesn’t add up to me to start charging a premium for a product.”

For what it’s worth, Google has been very clear that ads will still appear in search results — whether the user is paying for generative search or not. It’s a business model that has served it very well, to say the least.

“We’re not working on or considering an ad-free search experience. As we’ve done many times before, we’ll continue to build new premium capabilities and services to enhance our subscription offerings across Google. We don’t have anything to announce right now,” a Google spokesperson said.

However, perhaps a more pertinent question is not whether ads will disappear, but whether this seeming fragmentation of search reflects a change in the market, user expectations or server power demands — and what those changes mean for the brands and agencies who currently base their business on search.

“The fact of the matter is that no one knows where this is going and everyone is clutching at straws,” added Nissim.

“Google would always have gone down this path at one point but, when ChatGPT came out, it absolutely panicked and it came out with a rushed product, it’s had problems with Gemini. But the long and the short of it is that they’re never going to kill [the Google Ads] cash cow.”

For Hodgson, any change would simply be more of the same for Bring. After all, its role in the market is to “understand and interpret” what Google is doing and provide guidance for its clients.

“Google will provide guidance — 25, 30 years ago, you were flying blind with regards to what Google’s doing. The world and Google have changed a lot. There’s a huge amount of documentation on what to do or not do,” he said.

Google’s spokesperson said that it had been “reinventing” search “for years” to help people find what they need — or indeed what companies want them to find.

“With our generative AI experiments in Search, we’ve already served billions of queries, and we’re seeing positive Search query growth in all of our major markets. We’re continuing to rapidly improve the product to serve new user needs,” they added.

Nissim added that rather than viewing search as a distinct product from the rest of Google’s ecosystem — Android, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Calendar, Pay, Wallet etc. — this charging for search might be Google’s way in of charging users for a fully integrated service that, truly (and this time it’s serious) acts as a digital personal assistant.

Google phone users can already make the company’s Gemini AI assistant the personal assistant on their device, for a fee — “and then it does everything,” said Nissim.

“Your whole world, diary, music, everything is integrated and it’s super, super powerful. In my mind, that’s where it comes in. You’re paying for the advanced AI models within that network. All of us will have generative search but it’s the integration within that ecosystem where the money will come in.”

The long and short of it though, is that paid ads are not going anywhere — so the industry can take some comfort in that, at least.

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